The Great Gatsby review: It’s big, bold and brash, but is there anything behind the glittery facade?

Luhrmann's Gatsby is a stylised, sensory tour de force, just like the eponymous man's infamous parties, says Ellie Walker-Arnott

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Bold, beautiful, brash. Baz Luhrmann certainly doesn’t disappoint when it comes to the over-the-top theatrics we know and love him for. But is there anything behind The Great Gatsby’s glittery facade? 

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Gatsby (or Gaaatsby – it now sounds wrong without a Daisy-style drawl) opens with our narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) in a sanatorium suffering from a whole list of complaints after the eventful summer he spent in West Egg. Struggling to face his demons, Nick’s psychiatrist suggests he start a journal, and so the story begins…

Wide-eyed Nick moves in next door to Gaaatsby’s (sorry I’m at it again) imposing mansion house determined to spend the summer becoming an expert in the world of stocks and shares… but he is soon lured away from his books by the exciting escapades over the fence. 

From the beginning, Luhrmann’s Gatsby is a stylised, sensory tour de force, just like the eponymous man’s infamous parties. We are thrown into the swirling midst of the characters’ lust, lies and love for a drink (rarely is anyone seen without a martini glass in hand) The film is a kaleidoscope of lurid colour and excess with a thumping soundtrack – within minutes champagne is literally hurling itself across the screen to the sound of Jay-Z’s voice.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as the enigmatic Jay Gatsby. From his explosive entrance – a moment so perfectly over-the-top, with DiCaprio’s handsome smile taking centre stage, that you can’t help but be charmed by the ludicrousness of it all –  to the closing credits, he is triumphant. DiCaprio effortlessly captures the poise and presence of the elusive Gatbsy while also grounding him – the strange and unexplained man is the most tangible in a cast of otherwise one dimensional characters. From his childlike sense of hope to his stirring desperation, you feel it all with him – and not just because the accompanying baseline makes your rib cage shudder. 

Carey Mulligan is Gatsby’s Daisy, the long lost love who he longs to win back. She plays her as sweet and perhaps a touch too endearing – Fitzgerald’s Daisy is more sharp and selfish than Mulligan’s gentle and innocent turn. But DiCaprio and Mulligan do provide some of the film’s best scenes. Most notably the moment the former lovers are awkwardly reacquainted, surrounded by blooms and cake, in Carraway’s humble home. (It’s just a shame that we’d all already seen most of it in the trailers…)

You get a sense, though, that Luhrmann was more in his element directing the film’s spectacular party scenes than pausing on Fitzgerald’s plot. The director who breathed life into Moulin Rouge! clearly had a ball in the extravagant props department Gatsby’s budget must have afforded.

Within minutes, Carraway, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) and Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher) are letting loose at a sweaty soiree in Myrtle’s New York apartment, where the intimate crowd writhe around in their undergarments to a hyper hip hop soundtrack. But if you thought that party was good, just wait until you get an invite to Gatsby’s. His sensational shindigs are big and bold, his guests in fast-forward mode, shaking their fringing and downing their martinis at record speed. There are snakes curled around banisters, stuffed birds, streamers, feathers, fireworks… At Gatsby’s it literally rains glitter. Each preened and plumed attendee drinks in the sensory overload, just as we do. Though the camera’s refusal to stay still does border on disorientating at times, so those who suffer from motion sickness may find themselves wanting to turn away.

Nausea aside, Nick Carraway, the man through which we are supposed to see the story unfold, poses the film’s biggest problem. Putting Carraway in a sanatorium, recovering from his depression and alcoholism by penning a novel titled The Great Gatsby, is an unoriginal narrative device Luhrmann could have done without. While Luhrmann’s fixation on sentences pulled from Fitzgerald’s original novel feels at odds with the glossy adaptation –  if nothing else their appearance simply highlights the chasm between Fitzgerald’s meaningful and melancholy prose and Luhrmann’s frothy, surface level film.

Speaking of surface level, asides from showcasing spectacular parties, enchanting costumes and captivating car chases, Luhrmann seems a little unsure what Gatsby is actually about. Is it a story of ill-fated love? Or is it about power, politics and money? Is the film about Gatsby, the only decent man in the frame? Or Nick, a newcomer observing New York’s amoral social scene?

Luhrmann’s high-speed, high-colour approach does render The Great Gatsby a little like an extended trailer, but after an enjoyable, entertaining and engaging 142 minutes you may just say that the film’s ultimate message is of little consequence. Gatsby does have moments of brilliance, but it’s no Romeo + Juliet. It’s pretty to look at, but think about it for too long and you might be left wondering what exactly it was you watched… 

The Great Gatsby is in UK cinemas from today

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